Is Robbie Neilson on the verge of something exciting at Hearts?

Josh Ginnelly and Gary Mackay-Steven could turn Hearts into a devastating and exciting force. Picture: SNSJosh Ginnelly and Gary Mackay-Steven could turn Hearts into a devastating and exciting force. Picture: SNS
Josh Ginnelly and Gary Mackay-Steven could turn Hearts into a devastating and exciting force. Picture: SNS
There were two second half moments which showcased the difference between those who Hearts fans hope will form part of the ‘first XI’ and those who have not quite captured the imagination.

Within minutes of entering the field, Josh Ginnelly made a simple but devastating movement. He went towards the ball dragging full-back Jon Robertson with him before spinning in behind, latching on to a Stephen Kingsley clipped pass and speeding away.

As for Gary Mackay-Steven, he picked up a throw from Craig Gordon on the edge of the box and took Hearts 70 yards up the pitch within seconds. It was the first thing on his mind. In fact, it was the only thing on his mind. Get the ball and run.

Compare and contrast.

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Robbie Neilson’s Hearts team selection against Alloa Athletic. You could have polled the club’s 93,000 followers on Twitter and not one would have predicted the starting XI. The announcement was met in cartoon fashion, eyebrows lifting off supporters’ domes and hitting the roof such was the surprise.

Jordan Roberts, Euan Henderson and Elliott Frear were given the opportunity to lead the line. Each had moments of their own but too often it was interspersed by the desire for more.

Early in the first half, Neilson demanded Frear, who was in possession of the ball, to “run, run, run”. The Englishman has pace and a dangerous cross but hasn’t utilised it enough. He did, however, score a brilliant goal before half-time.

Roberts, who started as the striker before being moved to the right, simply hasn’t imposed himself. Late in the first half he had a promising opportunity to attack, commit a defender and shoot, but he stalled, dithered and the move broke down. Michael Smith urged him to be more positive.

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Robbie Neilson wants pace and width in his Hearts team. Picture: SNSRobbie Neilson wants pace and width in his Hearts team. Picture: SNS
Robbie Neilson wants pace and width in his Hearts team. Picture: SNS

The Replacements

Ginnelly and Mackay-Steven are two players whose mentality appears different, and one more in keeping what is required of Hearts wingers. They have an unabated craving to get the ball and move forward, quickly.

Neilson has spoken time and again about the need for pace in the team. Hearts now have two road runners who should excite fans. The type of players who engage supporters, which is more important than ever with games having to be watched from the house when it is so easy to disengage or be distracted.

Going forward with Ginnelly and Mackay-Steven flanking a lone striker or even a front pairing should arouse, for want of a better word, the Tynecastle faithful.

Two players who can transform the team and mindset.

For too long Hearts have been too pedestrian. It has still been the case this season. There have been spells where the team have looked like the red-hot league favourites, especially at home where they have blown teams away.

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But away from Tynecastle, results and performances have been, on the whole, underwhelming. This is not a new sensation, it can be a difficult watch on the club’s travels, going back a number of seasons.

0-60 game changers

Ginnelly and Mackay-Steven can change that. Teams will look at Hearts and be slightly more cautious, wary of leaving space behind in which these wingers can bomb into. Pace is a quality which frightens opponents, makes defenders second guess their movements, plays a trick on the subconscious.

Even when the team are not playing well or they are having an off day, their ability to go from 0-60 in one moment can change a game.

Against Alloa they played on their ‘opposite sides’, able to cut on to their stronger foot.

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A couple of moments showed one possible issue, where they are playing crosses or passes with their weaker foot leaving Liam Boyce frustrated. Yet, in the main, their positives will far outweigh any weaknesses, especially when it comes to getting amongst the goals.

"When the two of them came on I thought they gave us real pace in the wide areas," Neilson said.

Mackay-Steven is signed up for the next two and a half seasons. Hearts fans want Ginnelly to follow suit. The winger's Preston North End contract expires at the end of the season.

The 23-year-old has played just 142 minutes in the league but managed to score three times, a goal every 47 minutes. On top of that he has provided the team with a verve and vibrancy.

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Where do they fit?

Now it's been added to by the signing of Mackay-Steven who, along with Ginnelly, was 70 per cent fit, according to Neilson.

Think of the problems they will cause teams when up and running.

Now it is about fitting them into the collective. Neilson has preferred a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system so far this campaign but has spoken about wanting a 4-4-2 as part of the team's arsenal.

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“We need somebody who is going to get forward and get goals," the Hearts boss confirmed.

One thing Neilson can't be accused of is negativity. He wants his team to attack and score goals. He wants his wingers to take on full-backs and cross. He wants his striker(s) in the box. He wants midfielders to support the attack and offer themselves as an option in the box.

Hearts are still a work in progress but forward strides have been made with two players who are quick and direct. Whisper it, but this Hearts team are on the way to being an exciting proposition.